I had never seen anything from Bernardo Bertolucci, but a few of his other films that came to mind were Last Tango in Paris and 1900. I was expecting some mix of The Godfather and Le Samourai set in Italy during the 1930s. In all honesty, those were the meager reference point I was going into this film with. In some respects, it felt like my first time with The Leopard or The Battle of Algiers, because I thoroughly enjoyed the films, but the history and backstory really eluded me. Not knowing the ins and outs, what was fictitious or what was reality, I was forced to strip it down. So even if I could not track with everything, I could appreciate it as a piece of cinema trying to paint a picture of a certain time and place.
That’s what Bernardo Bertolucci and his cinematographer Vittorio Storaro do so well, and it turns The Conformist into a visual delight. It can stand on that merit alone, depicting gray facades that are only an outer shell for beautifully stylish interiors, flooded with light and infused with colors and textures. The drawing rooms are luxurious and Paris and Rome become the perfect backdrop for a world that vacillates between the bleak and the decadent. It’s the clean modernization of this fascist society intermingled with the ways of old. Storaro on his part, even makes leaves compelling and a man walking down the street becomes fascinating with dutch angles and contorted perspectives. That’s just the visual side of this film.
The Conformist, at its core, is a character study of one man, Marcello Clerici (Jean-Louis Trintignant), who is trying to find normalcy in a 1930s Italian world that is dictated by fascism. He’s a member of the secret police, who is assigned to knock off a political dissident seeking asylum in France. The target turns out to be one of his former professors so that in itself begins a personal conflict. There is a constant clashing of the state and duty with family and kinship. But within this main objective which drives the entire story and eventually takes Marcello from Rome to Paris, there is also a lot of personal baggage to be parsed through.
Although Marcello is pursuing the professor with his comrade Maganiello, a barrage of flashbacks cast some light on the rest of his life. It develops the framework for this man, what he does, and why he does it. His mother lives in their crumbling family mansion contenting herself with the companionship of her Japanese chauffeur “Tree.” Marcello’s father is locked away in an asylum. That is his family of origin and even going back to his childhood, he was traumatized and sexually abused. Now, in the present, he tries to conduct a normal lifestyle with his fiancee Giulia (Stefania Sandrelli), but when he goes to confession on her prompting, we realize how hardened he has become. His family does not seem all that important to him and religion is little more than a social structure.
And when he finally travels to Paris with Giulia, to meet with his old professor and complete his objective, that task gets complicated when he sees Anna (Dominique Sanda). Whether they know each other from before or not is ambiguous, but what’s not ambiguous are his advances towards her. It’s another weird, twisted dynamic because she knows that he is a fascist, and Marcello knows he will soon enough have to kill her husband. His wife and Quadri’s wife get along quite well. There is no animosity there, just like there seems to be no visible animosity between Marcello and his former teacher.
Murder should not enter this equation just as adultery doesn’t seem logical. Marcello even has his doubts, but again relationships, love, and family all take a back seat to the cause, just as he takes a back seat and lets everything run their course. But he cannot maintain his perfect veneer forever. There has to be a breaking point somewhere and so there is. With the fall of Mussolini, no one wants a conformist and Marcello is stuck in this gray area.
In The Godfather, since they are in America, at least they have some corrupted notion of family and religious faith. They accept capitalism although they work outside of it at times. But in The Conformist, although Marcello likes the idea of family, he really does not desire it. He falls for another woman in lieu of his wife, and yet that woman is of little concern to him when it comes to the agenda of the state. He looks for normalcy and maybe he gets it in a sense, but underneath it lies so much pain, dirt, and corruption. Just look at Marcello. He’s a repressed, misogynistic, faithless, fascist conformist. We expect him to be like Le Samourai, and he can’t even pull a trigger with confidence. He’s a pitiful, messed-up man who has been riddled with fascism. It didn’t kill him, but it might as well have.